4-6 May 2020
Europe/Vienna timezone

F - Life Sciences - Biotechnology

F.1 What’s new in the New Plant Breeding Techniques?

Brault, Nicolas (UniLaSalle), Sauvee, Loïc (UniLaSalle)

The abbreviation NPBT (New Plant Breeding Techniques) refers to any of a heterogeneous set of multiple techniques for plant breeding, such as zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), cisgenesis, intragenesis, agro-infiltration, epigenetic modifications using RNA-dependent DNA methylation (RdDM) and, of course, TALENs and CRISPR/Cas9.

A key issue is the regulatory framework for these techniques:  in 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union thus stated that “organisms obtained by means of techniques/methods of mutagenesis are genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) and subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive (2001). However, it also stated that “organisms obtained by mutagenesis techniques which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record are exempt from those obligations”.

In other words, some techniques of mutagenesis are subject to a specific legal regime (non-GMOs), whereas other techniques are subject to another specific legal regime (GMOs).

In this session, we would like to focus specifically on the site-directed nuclease techniques (ZFNs, TALENs, CRISPR/Cas9), because they are considered as targeted mutagenesis: in that sense, it becomes possible to introduce targeted improvements into a given variety and to accelerate the effect of breeding in crop species. This raises three major issues:

1)         The first issue is epistemological and concerns the question of targeting: are NPBT constitutes a form of neo-lamarckism in biology and plant breeding? In other words, is it possible to give a plant any trait we want or is it a more complex situation? Do these techniques really reduce or eliminate off-target mutations?

2)         The second issue is a regulatory and policy one: the problem is that, contrary to transgenic plants, modifications obtained by NBPT are almost undetectable. Therefore, if it’s not possible to trace the modifications and the techniques used, how could we distinguish between a non-GMO and a GMO? In other words, why regulate if we do not have the technical means to regulate?

3)         The last issue is societal: to our opinion, the novelty of these NPBT is not essentially technical but rather societal. The major breakthrough of these NBPT is that creating a new variety becomes fast but also affordable. Do these two characteristics (rapidity and cheapness) permit to small seed companies or agricultural cooperatives, or even individual farmers, to produce new varieties?  Or, on the contrary, do they reinforce the position of major companies?  In other words, could NBPT democratize plant breeding and lead to a kind of “do-it-yourself biology” or “biohacking”? And could this reappropriation of plant breeding by simple citizens or farmers could change the way these NPBT or GMOs are perceived by the public opinion?

To answer these questions, we would like to bring together experts from various scientific fields and scholarly traditions, including philosophy, sociology and history of science, plant breeding, biology and biotechnology; but also lawyers and policy-makers.

The session will be organized as a workshop: the selected speakers will successively present their work during 10 minutes, and the presentations will be followed by a debate with the audience.


KEYWORDS: New Plant Breeding Techniques,  Targeted Mutagenesis, GMO, Biotechnology,  Biohacking

F.2 Socio-economic relevance of novel genetically modified organisms

Lalyer, Carina R. , Frieß, Johannes L. (Institute of Safety/Security and Risk Sciences (ISR) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) Vienna), Giese, Bernd (Institute of Safety/Security and Risk Sciences (ISR) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) Vienna), Liebert, Wolfgang (Institute of Safety/Security and Risk Sciences (ISR) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) Vienna)

Due to substantial improvements in genome editing a variety of new genetically modified organisms (GMO) intended for release may soon be tested or used in applications. In particular novel genetic modification techniques as e.g., gene drives or HEGAAs1 put forward new ways to rapidly spread desired genes in natural populations. These modifications may either modify or supress wild populations of animals or plants. Gene drives are targeted at vectors for disease (e.g. malaria-transmitting mosquitoes), invasive species or agricultural pests. Besides the intended beneficial effect, releasing such modified organisms into the natural environment has the potential to lead to undesired negative ecological consequences at different organizational levels, from species, communities to landscapes.

However, using such a technology does not only affect ecosystems but can also lead to powerful and new consequences in the socio-economic, political, ethical and legal realm. Following the precautionary principle and the three pillars of sustainability, an early assessment of the use of novel environmental biotechnologies is pivotal to determine and understand the potential arising conflicts and the negative and beneficial effects. Ramifications may have its source e.g., in differences in national regulatory frameworks, national borders, protected cultural assets, different perceptions of nature, farming practices as well as lack of transparency and public trust.

The aim of this session is

(a) to explore the different facets of the socio-economical but also ethical and legal impacts that might arise from releasing modified organisms with novel editing techniques;

(b) analyse how prospective technology assessment can prepare for an appropriate governance framework and

(c) reflect on the role of responsible research and innovation regarding global ethics, transparency, knowledge and uncertainties in relations to novel GM techniques.

The participants of the workshop are interested individuals with or without prior knowledge on the subject who are willing to partake an interactive session. The format of this workshop is group-oriented brainstorming and idea exchange after short inputs (of approx. 5 min) with the goal to undertake an exploratory journey in the direction of the issue at hand.

1 Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAA), cf. R. G. Reeves, S. Voeneky, D. Caetano-Anollés, F. Beck, C. Boëte (2018) Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system? Insect-delivered horizontal genetic alteration is concerning. Science 362 (6410), 35-37 DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7664


KEYWORDS: Genetic modification, Socio-economic aspects, Prospective Risk Assessment, Precautionary Principles